November 19, 2012

Studio Apartment #5: The Cairo Gang

Studio Apartment is Jon Bernson's effort to document the interaction between musicians and their recording spaces. Jon is the prolific multimedia artist behind Exray's, Window Twins, THEMAYS, Ray's Vast Basement and numerous soundtracks for theater and film - really, beautiful guy.

As The Cairo Gang, Emmett Kelly has channeled multi-tracked visions through a very personal and unlikely recording set-up. His four records with The Cairo Gang conjure up the vibe of 70's British folk, stripped of any conventions and boundaries. Sometimes minimal, sometimes epic, Kelly's songs unfold in ways that are unpredictable, moving and seamless. Proficient on a variety of instruments Kelly has also collaborated and recorded with the likes of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Edith Frost, Joan of Arc, Scott Tuma, Beth Orton and Terry Reid.

Read the rest of the interview after the jump.
Give us a little overview of your writing and recording process for the new album.

This album was written at a time when my studio was in transition. As in, I had no studio. I was living transitionally at the time, doing a lot of touring and working out ideas in slight ways with whatever recording [and] note-taking abilities I had. For instance, some songs first were demo'd on my cell phone's voice memo program. Or on Garageband. Or anything. Generally working without a solid recording device. Once I was able to figure out a space that I could work in, I began assembling some gear and putting stuff down.

Describe your basic living situation, including any neighbor/roommate constraints? Relative bonuses of your physical space?

I live in a studio apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. It has no room in it to work. My landlord is very prolific as far as his buildings are concerned and once I had some down time I asked him if there was any weird unusable space he had that I could set up a studio in. I told him it was an art studio. Of course he had space because he owns a bunch of buildings in the neighborhood. He showed me this basement in the bottom of a building with six apartments in it. At first I was very quiet in there. There was a guy who lived upstairs and I didn't know him and I just didn't want to piss him off... maybe I did anyway, because he moved out. But amazingly, the guitar player in my band, the guy who plays pedal steel on The Corner Man [out on Empty Cellar Records] moved in upstairs and was totally down with me getting crazier in the studio. So I immediately found an old Slingerland drum kit on Craigslist and started getting deeper in it. Though there are some weird obstacles. For instance, the water heater for the building is in my space. If I want to track super quiet things, I have to do it in the time the water heater isn't going. My favorite part of the studio at first was the fact that there is a bathroom in there. This was great because I could easily deaden it with rugs and foam and put drums in there for that super dead drum sound I like.

Describe the basic layout of your room/studio.

The studio is a raw basement with one big room and a bathroom. There is no finishing on the walls or floor so the room is insanely reflective. this is super hard to work with. I was going for a sound on this record that was warm and dead and if there was any spacial effect, I wanted to be able to control it. I like roomy sounding things, but sometimes I get annoyed with the lack of closeness in roomy recordings. Or it becomes harder to add things because you have all of this conflicting space to deal with. For me its harder to make things stand out. I been of the mind lately to not add things to recordings and if I do, to make it as deliberate as possible. To me, it totally doesn't make sense to overdub something and have it be this subtle little thing you barely hear. I feel like if it isn't loud, what's the point of having it in there? This may be a phase, but I kind of feel like its a good phase. I hate it when things are buried in mixes. So with that in mind, its better to work in a deader space. This is always a work in progress though, because obviously funds are limited and the place is large enough that deadening the whole thing would be a big project...

What is the main program or device you use to record?

For this record I used logic. It's a lame computer program not dissimilar from any lame computer program. So far, it hasn't given me any guff. But I have found that the interface is pretty important. I use a apogee ensemble now, which is super great. For The Corner Man I didn't have this yet and used a piece of crap Mbox. Which greatly reduced my options especially when it came to drums being that there are only two ins. I use an altec 1592b specifically for this. This is a 5 to 1 mono mic mixer, so I could mic the drums the way I wanted to and mix it going onto one track. All of the drums on this record are on one channel with this preamp. I also use another pre-amp made by a guy in town named Rob Roy. It's called electronaut. It's very nice. Very very nice. I now get to hear it shine with the apogee converter, but with The Corner Man it saved the record because the Mbox totally sucks. Thank God I had it, but I was so so so glad to get rid of the thing. I hate that thing.

How linked is your recording process with your writing process? Explain how they interact, especially your two step process of beginning at home and then moving over to the studio.

Since the studio has been growing, it has become more entwined with the writing process. I treat it like it's my office and everyday I go there and work on ideas. I generally like to keep playing music out of my house. Because its really small and I want my apartment to be as calm as possible. I like to work in a kind of chaotic space. But I like to live in a seriously mellow place. Of course I keep a guitar in my apartment... an old ramirez flamenco guitar, as well as a mandola.

Talk about your process of making the music you're working on right now. 

Right now I am working on this really different sounding stuff. I have been wanting to be more economical with it, and more forceful. So the stuff I am doing is simple. Drums, bass, two 12 string electric guitars, and lots of singing... it starts with one electric being played with a beat box for timing. Then I add the bass, drums. Maybe return to bass, second 12, then sing. Then it all gets mixed down to a teac 2 track 1/4 inch machine. Also, I recently made a trip to Hitsville in Detroit and the thing that struck me most with the studio was the fact that everything was always ready. All the wires hanging from the ceiling. So when I went home I ran all the wires along the pipes from the ceiling and made it so everything is always wired up and ready. I never have to re-patch things. All I have to do is assign the correct input with the corresponding mics, and hit it. This makes things super easy and fast pace, which I love.

Can you share a sound bite or a soloed track from something you have made recently?

MP3: Cairo Gang - Tiny Rebels Excerpt

Do you draw inspiration from other mediums beside music? Why is this important to your process?

Of course. I listen to tons of music. I am a bit of a record geek, but I love other things. Comedy is really important. I love fucked up perverse comedy things like Wondershowzen and Get a Life. Monty Python, etc... I read the news. I look around. I go check things out that people around me are doing. arts… painting has shown me a lot about composition. I often approach recording with John Singer Sargent in mind. He makes bold moves with few strokes... I like that.

Describe a favorite item of hardware or software and why it is important to your recordings. 

I love reverb. I also hate reverb. It has to be good reverb. I use a Fender spring reverb unit. It's a beast and hard to make sound really good, but once you get it sounding good, it sounds fucking amazing. Lately my favorite thing is this tape recorder. Or any tape recorder, in fact. I also use an old Maestro Echoplex. I feel like the digital recording thing is a process of collecting sounds and the tape is the final platform to assemble it on. As if I'm doing a collage. There is a San Francisco painter named Leslie Shows that I really love. I think of her work. Finding textures and colors eventually piecing it together on a canvas. The tape is like a canvas. It's a tactile space that all of these sounds fight to exist on.

Talk about the way you like to sequence [the recording of] your tracks.

I generally like to start with the guitar and vocals. Recording it live, and then adding stuff. To me bass sort of frames the dynamic arc of a tune, so I often times do that second. Sometimes I'll record something incidental like a drone, or a weird fucked up guitar first, so when I sing and play the initial thing, I have to do it with this weird thing trying to throw me off...

Can you share a song that would be exemplary of where you're at right now?

MP3: Cairo Gang - Ill Force

You have acted as Producer/Recordist on a number of other projects outside of Cairo Gang. Can you describe what you like to bring to the table when you are acting in that role? Feel free to tell a story or focus on one particular session if you like. Preferably in your own recording space.

I just want to try to relate to the person who I am recording and their difficulty in doing so with my own difficulties recording my stuff.. I think recording is awkward and I think you can allow people to really shine when they don't feel like you are there.. when making Angel Olsen's record, I knew that she felt the same as me insofar as when I record, I feel like it's harder to sing comfortably when there are people around... when I am alone I can really get nerdy with the performance and come up with something I can dig. So for the initial tracking, I set her up in the toilet to get that good and dead sound, and then split for 30 minutes at a time. Would come back and see what was going on.. this, I think allowed her to feel free and lay the great takes of these songs down without feeling inhibited. Of course sometimes it just wasn't the case, so we tried other approaches, but that being the one that worked most of the time. Just leaving her alone. After we got those initial recordings, we could think about how to approach the rest.

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